Monday, April 23, 2012

At long last! A traditional seeded Irish soda bread

Well. I have been trying to make this forever. When my lovely Irish neighbor was fixing to leave town for New York, I asked her to tell me how she makes bread. Recreating a traditional soda bread (not the caraway-raisin one I turn out each year around St. Patrick's Day) is difficult on this side of the Atlantic because the flours are so different.

Being a professional cook and a frequent bread baker, my former neighbor didn't have a recipe to hand me. But she rattled off the ingredients and I sleuthed out a recipe online that sounded a lot like the bread she bakes several times a week.

You should feel free to tinker with it yourself, adding oats or other grains as you like. For example, the original recipe called for wheat and oat bran. I didn't have either in my pantry, but I did have a box of 7 Grain Hot Cereal which contains cracked wheat, steel cut oats, grits and millet - sort of a chicken scratch that gave the bread some nice texture.  Just follow the basic dry to liquid ratio and you'll turn out something delightful. My version is a slight adaptation from a recipe on Epicurious, which was reprinted with permission from A Baker's Odyssey by Greg Patent.

Anyway, the bread is quite perfect - very authentic and yet less dry than the brown breakfast bread I ate in Ireland. I baked it in a cast iron skillet, which may have helped.

Seeded Irish Soda Bread
Print recipe only here 

1 3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour, plus more for shaping
3 T cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 3/4 teaspoons salt
1/4 cup wheat bran AND 1/4 cup oat bran OR 1/2 cup 7 Grain Hot Cereal OR 1/2 cup oats
1/4 cup wheat germ
2 T flax seeds
1/3 cup raw sunflower seeds
1 large egg
About 1 3/4 cups buttermilk
2 T honey

Preheat the oven to 425°F. Lightly oil a heavy baking sheet or cast iron pan or line it with a silicone baking sheet.

In a large bowl, stir together the all-purpose flour and whole wheat flour. Add the butter and work it into the dry ingredients with your fingertips until the fat particles are very fine. Stir in the baking soda, salt, wheat bran and oat bran (or substitutes), wheat germ, flax seeds, and sunflower seeds.

Beat the egg lightly with a fork in a 2-cup glass measure. Add enough buttermilk to come to the 2-cup line. Add the honey and combine well.

Add the liquid to the dry ingredients and stir with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula until the dough gathers into a thick, wet-looking mass.

Sprinkle your work surface with whole wheat flour and scrape the dough onto it. Dust the dough with a bit more whole wheat flour. Pat the dough into a circular shape about 7 inches across and 2 inches high and transfer it to the prepared baking sheet.

Make a cross-shaped indentation on top of the loaf going right to the edges. I use a metal bench scraper.
Bake the bread for about 40 minutes, until it is well browned and sounds hollow when rapped on the bottom.

Cool for about 10 minutes before serving.

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Friday, April 20, 2012

What to Avoid Eating, At All Cost: Dishwasher Detergent

I've been leery about ingesting soap ever since I was about 7.  It would seem that in my first six years I never gave my mother occasion to wash my mouth out with soap. Either that or I gave her plenty of occasion but that it wasn't until my seventh year that she decided enough was enough. What happened was fairly straightforward. I don't recall what I said, but we were in the kitchen and she was washing dishes. I ran off at the mouth, she told me not to speak that way, and I thought we were good.

 It was the lack of contrition that did me in.

She waited a minute or so, then came over the table where I was sitting and asked me to open my mouth. I sensed her true motives and told her, No, I would not open my mouth because I was certain she was going to put soap in it. She said she wasn't going to...and then obviously did. Still, she had the higher ground - I was not just rude, but shameless and disobedient to boot.

Many years passed without soapy incident until this year, when I switched brands of dishwasher detergent. I had been using the generic stuff from Costco for years, but started noticing my drinking glasses were being destroyed. Finish Gelpacs came recommended so I made a change. I have a good dishwasher and normal city water but both were unable to remove the cloying chemical wash the Gelpacs left on my mugs, silcone spatulas, and glassware. Even a sip of water from a clean glass tasted, well, not soapy, but scented. Food should have flavor, not kitchenware.

After the disappointment that was the Finish gelpacs I went au naturel. I'm currently running trials on Ecover's dish washer tablets (procured at Whole Foods) and some Seventh Generation tablets that I picked up at Target - no complaints with either, tho I think I like the Ecover ones better.

Here's a bit of background on the differences between Finish and Ecover/Seventh Generation. Phosphates were banned by 17 states in 2010 because, after they get your dishes sparkling clean, they exit down the drain and into lakes and other bodies of water where they promote unreasonable algae growth that starves fish of oxygen and wreaks the balance of ocean ecosystems. Most major brands have limited phosphates to a trace and Finish can claim to be environmentally friendly since they comply.

But, most major brands do use chlorine bleach, perfumes and dyes which aren't necessarily regulated, nor are they necessarily removed fully from your kitchenware. Since Ecover and Seventh Generation produts are free of bleach, perfumes and dyes, that's what I went with. And my dishes look great.

Want to read more? 

Cleaner for the Environment, Not for the Dishes - From the NY Times 
Dishes Still Dirty? Blame Phosphate-Free Detergent - From NPR 
Phosphate-Free Automatic Dishwasher Detergents - From Good Housekeeping's Green Guide

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Thursday, April 19, 2012

What to Eat for Dessert: Butterscotch Pudding

This is an oldie, but a goodie. The lovely Melinda, who taught me practically everything I know in the sweet kitchen, used to make this when she was the pastry chef at Wolfgang Puck's short-lived, Los Angeles, brewery/restaurant Eureka. The recipe was printed in Adventures in the Kitchen, which included recipes from several of Puck's LA restaurants.  Melinda taught me how to make it in the mid 1990s when I worked in her kitchen at Cafe Nola in Washington State. I made it over the weekend for a dinner party after having forgotten about it for several years.

This pudding is great served with a Butterscotch Lace Cookie on the side. That recipe originally comes from the Bakers Cafe in Katonah, NY. That's the unifying theme - all these great establishments are gone. But not because of bad butterscotch.

Butterscotch is a a wonderful flavor and less tricky than caramel to make. The flavor is essentially achieved by combining dark brown sugar and butter, tho a bit of heat is required to strengthen it. Dark brown sugar is requisite here - light brown doesn't bring enough color or, really, molasses to the equation. If you're a sugar geek, you might appreciate these facts: light brown sugar contains 3.5% molasses compared to 6.5% molasses for dark brown sugar. Sugar geeks already know that brown sugar is just white granulated sugar with molasses added. If you're a super sugar geek, you know that molasses itself is a by-product of the sugar making process (the steps between hacking sugar cane in the jungle (or uprooting a sugar beet) and the particular product you purchase to fill your sugar bowl - for me it's Sugar in the Raw or La Perruche raw cubes). And if you had the same wacky naturopath as I did in the late 1990s and were iron deficient and told to supplement your diet with blackstrap molasses you know that blackstrap molasses is the sludge left over after every last bit of sugar has been sucked out of the cane. Or beet.*

Anyway, this is a roundabout way of saying to use dark brown sugar when you make butterscotch because it's not as good if you don't.

Butterscotch Pudding
Print recipe only here

Makes 8-10 six-ounce servings

6 ounces unsalted butter
2 1/2 cups dark brown sugar
1 vanilla bean, split down the middle and scraped
3 1/2 cups milk
1 1/2 cups half and half
1/2 cup cornstarch
6 egg yolks
2 t vanilla extract

First, measure out everything. This is the kind of recipe where everything needs to be on hand because the steps must be executed in quick succession.  Measure the cornstarch into a small bowl, and separate the eggs and place the yolks in a mixing bowl. Whisk lightly.  Also, set a fine mesh strainer inside a mixing bowl or large pitcher. You will strain the pudding before transferring it to individual cups. Set out the cups/ramekins/glasses in which you intend to serve the pudding.

Now...begin!  Heat the butter in a medium-large saucepan over low heat until melted. Add brown sugar and vanilla bean and whisk until smooth. Cook over medium-low heat for 5-10 minutes, stirring every so often, to let the flavor develop and the color darken.

Heat milk and half and half in a medium saucepan, preferably one with a pour spout. Bring to a very low simmer.

Pour a little of the hot milk over the cornstarch and stir until smooth. Reserve.

Slowly add the remaining hot milk to the butter and sugar, whisking well to combine. If it separates, don't fret - just remove the pan from the heat and continue to whisk until it comes together.

Add the cornstarch to the saucepan, whisking in well.

Carefully ladle some of the hot pudding into the egg yolks, whisking well. Add another ladle of pudding and whisk. Then return that mixture to the pot and combine all together.

Add the vanilla extract and continue to cook for another minute. Strain thru the mesh strainer into a clean bowl or pitcher and immediately transfer the pudding to individual glasses.

I can't comment on the difference between beet and cane sugar or molasses. For sugar I do always purchase C&H or Domino which are labeled Pure Cane. And for molasses, I only ever buy Grandmother's, which is also a pure cane product. 

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Friday, April 13, 2012

What to Eat First: Asian Scallion Meatballs

This was a great find - a recipe (Scallion Meatballs with Soy Ginger Glaze) from a cookbook series I had not heard of (Canal House Cooking). On my next outing to the bookstore I plan to scout out a copy. I have standards for cookbooks. They must teach me something I don't know, but also contain recipes for dishes I have time to cook and that my family would enjoy eating. I haven't purchased a new cookbook in awhile - food blogs and the online sharing of recipes have met my needs for a new recipe when one is called for.

Anyway, we really enjoyed these Asian meatballs - light, lean, incredibly flavorful. They make great appetizers, especially if you can source those wicked cool knotted bamboo picks. And they froze well, too.

Here's that recipe:
Scallion Meatballs With Soy-Ginger Glaze
Adapted from Canal House Cooking, vol. 3, by Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hirsheimer

Makes apx. two dozen


For the meatballs:
1 pound ground turkey
4-6 green onions, finely chopped
1 bunch cilantro, finely chopped (about 1 cup)
1 egg, lightly beaten
2 teaspoons sesame oil
2 tablespoons soy sauce
Freshly ground black pepper
Canola oil

For the sauce:
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup mirin (sweet rice wine), or 1/2 cup sake with 1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup chopped peeled ginger
1 teaspoon ground coriander
4 whole black peppercorns

Make sauce: Bring sugar and 1/2 cup water to a boil in a saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring until sugar melts completely. Reduce heat to medium-low and add soy sauce, mirin, ginger, coriander and peppercorns. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until reduced by half, about 30 minutes. Strain through a sieve. Can be made up to 2 days ahead and refrigerated.

Make meatballs: mix turkey, scallions, cilantro, egg, sesame oil, soy sauce and several grindings of pepper in a bowl. Roll tablespoons of mixture into bite-sized balls. At this point, you can freeze them. The best way to do this is to put them on a sheet pan, spaced apart so they're not touching each other. Wrap well with plastic wrap and freeze overnight. Transfer the frozen meatballs to a ziploc bag the next day. Then cook as directed below (the skillet/oven combination of cooking works very well with frozen meatballs).

When ready to cook, heat a skillet over medium-high heat. Add 1 tablespoon canola oil. Working in batches to avoid crowding, place meatballs in pan and cook, turning, until browned all over and cooked inside, about 8 minutes per batch. Alternately, brown all over then transfer to a preheated 350F oven to finish cooking.

Arrange on a heated platter, spoon a little sauce over each meatball, and serve with toothpicks. Can be kept warm in a 200-degree oven until ready to serve.

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